This posting is my contribution to The Great Villain Blogathon. Please take a look at the other postings, which cover an amazing range of films.
There’s something peculiarly chilling about a villain stalking you in your own house – especially when it’s the person who is supposed to be your soulmate. A number of films made in the era of noir explored the plight of wives psychologically tortured by their husbands (Rebecca, Suspicion, The Two Mrs Carrolls). The two versions of Gaslight are among the best.
Here are my thoughts on the two films – and the two villains of the piece, played by Anton Walbrook and Charles Boyer, with Diana Wynyard and Ingrid Bergman as their terrified wives. Both versions have great lead performances and it’s fascinating to compare them. In particular, Boyer and Walbrook are very different. To my mind the earlier film, directed by Thorold Dickinson, holds its mood better and is more truly frightening than the George Cukor remake, but both are powerful dramas in their own right.
Although there are many changes, in each case the main story is the same, focusing on a wife trapped within a Gothic house amid the darkness of Victorian London. A murder took place in the house years ago, with a woman being killed for her jewels, but her attacker failed to find the gems and went away empty-handed. Now the house is haunted by the memory of that crime. Every evening the gaslight dims – but is it really the wife’s mind which is fading? Her apparently attentive husband claims that she is showing signs of mental illness, yet it becomes increasingly apparent that he is the one driving her to a breakdown.
I first saw this chilling tale of domestic abuse on stage, rather than in either of the films. It started out as a play by Patrick Hamilton, Gas Light (or Angel Street in the US), which is still often revived in the UK. Both the films do retain a feeling of stage melodrama at times, especially in some of the key scenes.
Following the play’s success in 1938, it was adapted for cinema by leading British director Dickinson. Four years later MGM’s big-budget remake followed, and the studio tried to suppress and indeed destroy all copies of the earlier film. Fortunately they failed, and now the British film has been restored by the BFI and issued in the UK on Blu-ray in a pristine print. This type of thing also happened with French films such as Pépé le Moko , remade as Algiers, where Charles Boyer stepped into Jean Gabin’s shoes, as he does here with Anton Walbrook. In both cases, Boyer ended up getting an Oscar nomination. In Algiers, the remake is often almost identical to the original – but there are a lot more differences here, with interesting changes in emphasis and character portrayal along with reworking of the plot.
Both films feature powerful art direction, camerawork and use of music, helping to create a mood of unbearable tension. However, the fact that the Dickinson film was made in Britain, on a relatively low budget and with outdoor scenes shot on location in London, does give it an extra stamp of authenticity. This film takes place over a tighter timescale and has a claustrophobic atmosphere because so much of it is contained within the house. There is pervasive darkness, making Cukor’s film seem too brightly lit at times by comparison. This film also begins with a murder taking place over the credits, so that the feeling of violence simmering just under the surface is there from the start.
As soon as we meet the couple, Bella and Paul Mallen, the abusive marriage is already in place. We never see their initial happiness. Bella (Wynyard) is already afraid and under strain, with Paul (Walbrook) switching between charm, affection and sadistic mocking in a moment. One of the many memorable scenes showing his cruelty has a Punch and Judy show taking place out in the street. As Walbrook is carrying out psychological violence to his wife in the house, outside the window the puppet show of physical violence is being played out. (This is also an example of the greater focus on British popular culture in this version – like the music hall scenes later in the film.)
In the 1940 Gaslight, we are only treated to occasional glimpses of how Paul could have gained domination over Bella and married her in the first place. For instance, there is a scene where he tells her to get the maid Nancy (Cathleen Cordell) to bring crumpets and cook them. Here he is ordering Bella about, but is still charming and manages to give the impression he is being considerate and pampering her – before his voice alters abruptly, as she knew it would. Paul’s flirting with Nancy, and indeed kissing her and making assignations with her, also shows his attractiveness to women. Interestingly, he orders Nancy about and changes mood with her from one minute to the next, almost as he does with Bella.
The casting of Walbrook inevitably adds a dimension in a film set in London and released during the early days of the war. His Austrian accent has an instant effect of making the audience suspicious of him. He is frequently referred to as a “foreigner”, whereas Wynyard is very English, with her clipped accent. She plays a character struggling to keep her emotions hidden, as she did in her earlier role in Cavalcade.
In the original film, it is gradually revealed that the husband has sinister links to the house where he has brought his wife to live. The US remake starts off with a long back story, which makes the wife the one who has already lived in the house. The film opens with the young Paula (Bergman) coming out of the door, after the murder of her aunt, an opera singer. This is a more far-fetched and convoluted plot than in the earlier film, and makes it unlikely that she could ever be persuaded to go back to the house. However, it could be argued that her husband persuading her to do so is an early example of his psychological manipulation.
Following her aunt’s murder, Paula travels to Italy to train as a singer too. She first meets her future husband, Gregory (Boyer) there, where he plays the piano during her lessons and woos her through music. While detracting from the oppressive mood and tension established at the start, this section does bring in a sunlit contrast to the London square, to be remembered later. It also puts the film as a whole more firmly within the women’s emotion picture genre.
This long opening works to show how Paula’s life could have developed if not for her marriage. She could have been a great singer like her aunt, who looked just like her (there is a painting of the aunt in the house). These scenes also show her falling for her husband. Boyer’s looks and charm mean it is all too easy for the audience to fall under his spell too, and to regard the wedding as a happy ending, instead of the beginning of a nightmare. Viewers have seen the romance and are invested in the relationship, so for a while we hope, along with the bride, that her husband’s growing cruelty is all a mistake.
Gregory is a musician too, unlike Walbrook who just seems to live on his wife’s money – so there is a sense of what he could have been if he had chosen a different path. During the courtship, there is a scene where he bids farewell to Paula, but meets her at the other end of the train journey. It’s a move which is romantic and yet also manipulative, especially in retrospect. Cukor’s touch can be seen all through this section. Although he resented his “women’s director” label, it brought out how he did give women fuller roles, so Bergman’s character here isn’t just the scared wife, but also the singer devoted to her aunt’s memory.
TCM’s article about the film says Bergman had some doubts about her casting because she felt she was too robust for the role – but Cukor persuaded her that was just what he wanted, saying that to show a healthy woman being reduced to a “jittering wreck” made the story more effective. Both lead actors in this version relished being cast against type.
After the apparently romantic courtship, there is a gentler performance from Boyer once they are in London than with Walbrook, but with the suggestion of fire building below the surface. Bergman, who won an Oscar, is the more memorable of the two leads in this version of the story, whereas in the earlier film it was Walbrook – but although Boyer’s menace is quieter it is still effective. The husband isn’t as involved with the maid, Nancy, in this version, where she is played by a brilliant Angela Lansbury in her debut role, but there is still an unmistakable sexual attraction there – and he still uses the maid to humiliate her mistress.
The character of the policeman changes between the two versions. In the 1940 film, an elderly policeman (Frank Pettingell) who remembers the murder case becomes obsessed with trying to solve it and to protect the wife. In the remake, however, it’s an attractive younger policeman out to solve the case, Brian Cameron ( Joseph Cotten). Although I like Cotten in other roles, his character doesn’t really work here – maybe the problem is that he just doesn’t have enough to do.
The eccentric aspects of the policeman in the original go here to May Whitty as Miss Thwaites, a stereotyped comic elderly Englishwoman who completely ruins all the tension every time she comes in. Scenes of her chatting to the pigeons in the square are particularly cringe-making, pointing to a weakness in this version. The house itself looks breathtaking in the Cukor film, and you can certainly see why Cedric Gibbons and his team won an Oscar. However, the exteriors are often too sunlit and I couldn’t help wondering if this was California rather than London. The glamorous MGM gowns worn by Bergman are also rather distracting, especially in scenes where Paula is supposed to be beside herself with worry but has evidently spent hours being dressed in a sweeping designer creation with a tiny waist.
This next bit mentions the film’s ending.
Although in each film the husband has committed a violent murder at the start, the weapons he uses through most of the drama fit more into a “feminine” stereotype – such as making spiteful comments and moving household items. He also has a “feminine” obsession with jewels. This is played up more in the Cukor version, where the jewels are more apparently a McGuffin. We are told they are European Crown Jewels which can’t be sold, whereas the rubies in the Dickinson version are desired partly for their monetary value. This is emphasised with a visit to the Tower of London and the Crown Jewels there, again adding glamour. However, the fixation with jewels is already there in the original, where Paul (Walbrook) turns on a last desperate charm offensive against his wife for just one more glimpse of the rubies, even when he is tied in a chair and knows that everything is lost.
There is a difference between the two films’ endings, as again the British film brings out the threat of physical violence. Wynyard threatens Walbrook with a knife, whereas in the remake she only holds it near him for a second and then pretends to lose it. In the Hollywood film there is an extra emotional twist with the hint that Boyer really did feel something for Bergman “but the jewels came between us” – a chilling moment where he does a lot with his eyes. Well yes, the jewels and the murder.
So which actor makes the greater villain? To my mind, it’s Walbrook all the way – he is spellbinding in his evil, and Boyer can’t really hold a candle to him. (Admittedly, I do find Walbrook more attractive, which may influence my reaction here, but I think I’m mainly responding to his acting.) Also, which film is more feminist? That’s harder to say. The Cukor one has that whole section earlier on where Paula considers a career as a singer, but at the end there is no suggestion of her going back to the stage – just the clunking anti-climax of a hinted new romance with Cameron. In the Dickinson film, Bella seems more permanently damaged and is going to live with her cousins. In each film, the heroine is helped by men, but her own determination not to lose her mind also counts for a lot.
I’d be interested to know if anyone has thoughts on the reasons why the whole series of films where men torment their wives struck a chord with audiences at this time? It certainly fits the mood of noir, undermining the assumptions of the Code while sticking to its letter, as it questions the domination of wife by husband. The cruel husbands are also a counterweight to all those femmes fatale driving men to murder. I wonder, too, if the later films of this type picked up on the fears about couples being separated during the war and husbands returning as strangers, burdened by violent experiences that they didn’t want to speak about.